Monday, November 11, 2013

Victory in Montgomery! For now.

The Montgomery County Council has put a hold on a proposal to reduce the number of stores required to charge five cents for disposable plastic and paper checkout bags.

In a committee work session last Monday, Councilmember Roger Berliner said his amendment aimed to "strengthen" the law by exempting some businesses from it. The bill passed 2-1, with sponsors seeking to rush it to a full Council vote before the end of the year. On Wednesday, following a phone conversation with County Executive Ike Leggett, Berliner changed course, agreeing to wait on further action until the County can conduct surveys and collect more data. He asked the Department of Environmental Protection to provide a report by Summer 2014.

The current law, in effect since January 2012, requires all retailers in the county to charge a five-cent fee for disposable plastic and paper checkout bags. Bill 10-13 would carve out retailers that primarily sell goods other than food, as well as plastic bags used for takeout restaurant food. Only stores that earn more than 2% of their gross sales from food would continue to collect the fee.

At a hearing in June, environmental and citizen groups, and the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, largely opposed the proposed amendment, while small chambers endorsed it. Opponents argued that the bill language was unclear and that non-food store bags also pollute county streams and neighborhoods. One question was the definition of "food." Under the state sales tax code, "food" does not include alcohol, soda, or candy. This definition would exempt liquor stores and potentially many convenience stores from the law.

The lack of clarity on what stores would be exempted also troubled advocates--retailers do not currently report the breakdown of their sales to the County government, and even the Council attorney could only offer his best guess on whether stores like Target and CVS would be exempted. Advocates argued that the Council needed to provide a detailed list of the stores that would be exempted before taking action.

Hearing these comments, the committee did amend the bill to include alcohol in the definition of "food," but delayed making a decision on soft drinks and candy.

In addition to collecting bag sales and public opinion data, the delay also affords DEP the opportunity to conduct more outreach, including distributing free reusable bags in low-income communities and educating county residents and businesses on the positive aspects of the law--significantly fewer bags being littered, revenue for pollution prevention projects, and cost savings for retailers.

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